Tag Archives: Israeli settlements

In Hebron, you don’t ask “why?”

National Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article by me about Hebron on 11 December 2013. It is online at http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.562723. Here is the text of the article:

In Hebron, you don’t ask ‘why?’

Three months of living in Hebron taught me what goes on there makes no sense, either for Israel’s security or for the Palestinians who live there.

In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.

I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history – my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.

After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.

As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city – at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”

I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.

I kept asking: Why?

British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.

On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.

Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.

If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there – especially to the young people – makes Israel less secure.

One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say ‘pebbles’ advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians – this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.

I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.

While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.

Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.

Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?

I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.

I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”

Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at http://www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward

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Israel’s settlements devastate peace

National Scottish newspaper The Scotsman published an article by me about Hebron on 15 October 2013.  It is online at http://www.scotsman.com/news/melanie-ward-israel-s-settlements-devastate-peace-1-3141288.  Here is the text of the article:

 

Israel’s settlement’s devastate peace

Israel’s expansion into Palestinian land must stop in order for an end to the conflict to stand a chance, writes Melanie Ward

In recent weeks, I have learnt to tell the difference between the sounds that various weapons make when fired by the Israeli army: tear gas; sound bombs and plastic-coated steel bullets. Observing violent clashes, I have seen injured Palestinians – more than 200 were hurt in all – carried to ambulances, sirens blaring. I have offered my sympathy to young Israeli soldiers grieving for the loss of their friend and comrade who was shot and killed on duty. I have hugged a Palestinian mother weeping for her sons, held apparently indefinitely in Israeli prisons. I have heard the fear of an Israeli father whose daughter will soon be conscripted into the army. Both Israelis and Palestinians have told me of their desperation for peace, for an end to the conflict that blights the Holy Land and the lives of so many here.

I am in Hebron in the occupied Palestinian territory, halfway through a three month stint as a human rights observer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an initiative of the World Council of Churches. Life back home feels worlds away.

Foreign secretary William Hague says the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away and on its last chance. This is largely due to the rate of Israel’s settlement construction and expansion on Palestinian land. It is a major obstacle to peace, being so rapid that having enough land left on which to create a viable Palestinian state will soon be impossible.

I have visited Israel-Palestine several times before, twice with organisations which focus on Israeli perspectives. My regular job is with international poverty charity ActionAid, so I have seen suffering before. But nothing can prepare you for what it is like to actually live here for a while.

My role is to monitor and report on human rights abuses and to support vulnerable communities who suffer under the Israeli military occupation. It is also to support those working for peace. Alongside dozens of Palestinians, I have met Israelis of all ages working for change. Some are young men – former Israeli soldiers like Yehuda, Avner and Shay, who want people to know the truth of what is done by their army in places such as Hebron. Others are retired Israeli women like Hanna, Tzipi and Ya’el who help Palestinians at military checkpoints.

It is these checkpoints which divide Hebron.

Hebron is literally a city of two halves. One side is a bustling Palestinian city – designated as H1 under the Oslo Accords. Then, as you step into a portacabin that blocks a street in the city centre, you find that it is actually military checkpoint 56. It’s like stepping through some kind of dystopian mirror. Exiting the checkpoint and still in Hebron, but, designated here as H2 and entirely controlled by Israel, are young Israeli soldiers with large guns. H2 is known as “the ghost town” due to its eerie, deserted feel.

In H2, Palestinians are forbidden to drive or walk on most of the main street, which used to be the heart of commercial Hebron. Some have permits to get to their own homes, some have had their front doors welded shut by soldiers. Many Palestinians have left altogether. More than 1,000 homes stand abandoned and more than 1,800 businesses have closed. But there is one group who can walk, drive and exercise their freedom – the 500-700 Israeli settlers. Their presence is illegal under international law but they are protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The settlers are religiously motivated, believing that they are doing God’s work in attempting to rid Hebron of Palestinians and make it fully Jewish. They don’t shirk from using violence and harassment – I have witnessed both – and they act with almost total impunity.

The violent clashes that erupted during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot escalated when the Israeli army entered Palestinian H1 – violating international agreements – and began closing shops and roads, and demanding people leave the area. The reason became clear: 200 Israeli settlers wanted to pray at an old tomb located here.

Tensions grew and by the end of the day the centre of Hebron resembled a war zone. Later that day, an Israeli soldier was shot dead in another part of the city.

If Scotland feels far away, the US-led talks about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations feel even further.

Key to the settlers achieving their aim is their creation of “facts on the ground”. They already occupy four settlements in Hebron city centre and two on the outskirts. Now they plan to create two new ones.

The day the soldier was shot here, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the settlers should be facilitated to take one of them, located next to a Palestinian girls’ school.

The second is a complex called the Al Rajabi building, large enough to house 40 families. Settlers call it Beit HaShalom (the House of Peace). The highly strategic location would help them expand and link existing settlements, with serious implications for the nearby Palestinians. Settlers occupied this building in 2007-8, during which time the UN documented their violence, including arson and shooting two Palestinian men.

Many here say it beggars belief for the Israeli government to encourage the creation of new settlements by violent settlers in a most bitterly contested part of the West Bank, at the same time as the attempt to restart peace negotiations.

The Israeli Supreme Court is currently considering the cases but the Israeli government will have the final say. William Hague, John Kerry and their colleagues must be uncompromising: new settlements in Hebron are entirely unacceptable.

I recently met Ismail, a 22-year-old Palestinian who has just been released from five months in an Israeli prison for writing graffiti on a refugee camp wall where he lives.

Yet he is incredibly positive and hopeful about the future. He uses social media to converse with young Israelis about their shared desire for peace.

He told me: “I think maybe one day we will be neighbours and they will say to me ‘Shalom, come in for a cup of tea.’ I think we will have peace one day.”

New settlements in Hebron devastate the dream of peace shared by Ismail and his Israeli friends. They must be stopped.


Melanie Ward is a graduate of Stirling University and a former president of NUS Scotland.

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